As you might have guessed, I’ve been reading through some of J.S. Mill’s major works lately. Mill had an unusually intensive classical education that enabled him to read Greek and Latin as a young man with a fluency that few people today manage in a lifetime. In 19th century England, however, a basic working knowledge of Latin was still part of virtually every ordinary educated person’s repertoire. Accordingly, Mill, like many other authors, sometimes used Latin phrases and quotations in his works without translating or citing them, expecting that his readers would understand the Latin, if not recognize the source. For better or worse, ordinary educated readers today do not have basic Latin as a matter of course, and so more recent editions of older works tend to add helpful footnotes when Latin shows up. Such footnotes can only be helpful, however, when they get the Latin right. Usually they do. Occasionally, however, they do not.
I’ve recently discovered that there is a widespread tendency to get the Latin wrong in one passage of Mill’s On the Subjection of Women. This passage comes in the first chapter, in the midst of an argument that men are not in a position to suppose that they understand even the particular women they know, let alone women’s “true nature,” if there be such a thing. Given the conditions of enforced dependence and servility that women live under, men cannot infer that the attitudes and behaviors of most women in society reflect women’s “true nature” rather than the peculiar dispositions that their position in society has encouraged them to have, and men cannot even presume to know the minds of their own wives so well as they might come to know the minds of other men with whom they interact on a basis of equality. This will be so, he says, “as long as social institutions do not admit the same free development of originality in women which is possible to men. When that time comes, and not before, we shall see, and not merely hear, as much as it is necessary to know of the nature of women, and the adaptation of other things to it.” He then continues, and here we get the Latin in question: “I have dwelt so much on the difficulties which at present obstruct any real knowledge by men of the true nature of women, because in this as in so many other things ‘opinio copiae inter maximas causas inopiae est’; and there is little chance of reasonable thinking on the matter, while people flatter themselves that they perfectly understand a subject of which most men know absolutely nothing, and of which it is at present impossible that any man, or all taken together, should have knowledge which can qualify them to lay down the law to women as to what is, or is not, their vocation.”
The Penguin Classics edition, edited by Alan Ryan, gives us a footnote on the Latin phrase: “opinio…inopiae est: Latin, ‘popular opinion is deficient in most matters,’ Francis Bacon, Novum Organum (1620).” Anyone with even a rusty knowledge of first year Latin will recognize that this is most definitely not what the Latin says, nor is it an acceptable paraphrase. But Ryan’s edition (2006) is, surprisingly, not unusual in rendering it this way. Michael Morgan’s Classics of Moral and Political Theory (1st edition 1992, 5th and most recent edition 2011) translates, “popular opinion is deficient on most matters.” In this it follows the 1988 Hackett edition by Susan Okin. The Broadview Anthology of Social and Political Thought (2008) gives “popular opinion is deficient on many matters.” The edition published by Cosimo Classics (2008) renders it, “general opinion is inadequate on most matters.” So there’s some disagreement about whether Mill is talking about general opinion or popular opinion, though those may be the same thing; there’s some disagreement about whether such opinion is inadequate or deficient on most matters or only on many; but otherwise these editions all agree. Okin’s and Morgan’s editions go one step further and offer a nuanced point to help us appreciate how sly Mill is: “By using the present est instead of the subjunctive sit, Mill misquotes Bacon, thereby making a more pejorative judgment of the views of the many.” This is, frankly, bizarre, because it shows that Okin, or whoever is responsible for this bit of editorial erudition, at least knows enough Latin to distinguish the indicative and subjunctive forms of the present tense of esse. But the trouble here is not just that the translation is wrong; rather, it’s that the Latin is not making any kind of point about popular opinion at all, except rather indirectly.
A literal translation of the Latin would read: opinion of plenty is among the greatest causes of want. We find more idiomatic translations in the Oxford World Classics editions. The edition by John Gray (1998) gives “thinking that one is wealthy is one of the main causes of poverty.” The more recent edition (2015) by Mark Philip and Frederick Rosen gives a slight variation: “thinking that one is wealthy is one of the greatest causes of poverty.” These are the only English editions I’ve been able to find that do not simply mistranslate the Latin, though the French translation by Françoise Orazi also does well, giving “l’idée qu’on a de la richesse est l’une des plus grandes causes du besoin.”
It should be clear that this isn’t just a pedantic Latinist’s point, but affects how we understand what Mill is saying here. On the prominent mistranslation, he’s simply saying that most people’s opinions aren’t worth much, and doing it in a snooty elitist way by saying it in Latin. He clearly believes that popular opinion is deficient in most or many matters, but that’s not the point he’s making. Rather, he’s making the far more important point that we’re especially liable to go wrong in our thinking if we simply assume that we of course are in a perfectly good condition to know what’s what. Unlike the hackneyed dismissal of popular opinion, this is not a point that highly educated and snobbish readers can afford to ignore as not possibly applying to them because they are, after all, not among “the many.” Even we enlightened Victorian gentlemen might be blind to the poverty of our own opinions because we do not appreciate how abysmal our epistemic position is; if we think we’re supplied with perfectly adequate evidence and that we are in a perfectly good position to interpret and assess it, then we’re bound to reject Mill’s arguments out of hand and thereby, Mill thinks, persist in holding severely mistaken views about women. This is an important point that many of us men today would do well to keep in mind when thinking about women and what we think we know about them. By contrast, the mistranslations make it seem as though the point is simply that most people are idiots. Hardly a trivial difference!
The footnote in Okin and Morgan’s editions is doubly bizarre because it comes with the faux-erudition of letting us in on a subtlety that only a special knowledge of Latin reveals. In fact, however, the difference between Mill’s indicative est and Bacon’s subjunctive sit does not have the force that the footnote attributes to it. Bacon used the subjunctive for a simple reason: the verb in the preface to the Great Instauration appears in a subordinate clause introduced by the conjunction cum, which can only be causal or explanatory (‘because’ or ‘since’) if its verb is in the subjunctive mood, and will otherwise be temporal (‘when,’ ‘while,’ etc.). Mill, however, has inserted this Latin maxim into an English causal clause (“because in this as in so many other things…”) and omitted the cum, and so uses the indicative to avoid the suggestion of other possible meanings of the subjunctive used without cum. This is only slightly less basic than changing the tense of a quoted verb from past to present because the present fits your context better; if you want to quote A Tale of Two Cities to describe life today, you’ll say “it is the best of times, it is the worst of times” instead of using Dickens’ past tense. The difference between Mill’s est and Bacon’s sit has nothing to do with making a more pejorative point; presumably the author of the note in Okin and Morgan’s editions remembers that subjunctives are used to express potential facts or states of affairs, as English does with modal verbs like ‘could,’ ‘would,’ or ‘may,’ but has either forgotten that this is only one of many uses of the subjunctive or simply didn’t bother to go look at the passage in Bacon to see how it was being used. In short, the footnote adds an unnecessary interpretive gloss that is not only mistaken, but reveals basic linguistic incompetence.
How does this sort of thing happen? One cause, obviously, is that fewer people today with reputations for expertise in the history of political philosophy know any Latin. But that is neither surprising nor especially problematic. What is surprising and problematic is that somebody who clearly could not pass a second semester Latin course thought that he or she was perfectly competent in Latin, and then various other editors simply copied and pasted with a bit of variation and without bothering to ask anyone who does know Latin whether the note was right. The mistake cannot, so far as I can see, be attributed to some editors simply looking at a translation of Bacon and assuming that it was accurate, because I can’t find any translation of Bacon that renders the line in anything like the mistaken way that most English editions render Mill’s quotation of it. Instead, what we have here is the spectacle of ignorant people presuming that they know perfectly well how to understand something that they’re quite evidently not in a position to understand.
The great irony of this is that this is precisely what the Latin maxim warns us against. Opinio copiae inter maximas causas inopiae est: not “oh, look at how stupid hoi polloi are, they won’t even understand this Latin!” but rather, “be careful not to suppose that you are in a position to know what you are in no position to know.” Would that more of Mill’s editors had taken this advice!